Who was Robin Hood? Was he a real person, or just a myth? Medieval accounts are surprisingly consistent in what they say about when Robin Hood lived. They all agree that Robin Hood was an outlaw, active between c.1250 – c.1300. In this article we will explore this claim. Could it be true? And, if so, who exactly was the real Robin?
“…numbers of robbers, on horseback and on foot, were abroad and that no religious or other person could pass without being taken by them and spoiled of his goods.”King’s Calendar Patent Rolls
This is part 3 of a series of articles investigating the legend of Robin Hood. If you have missed my earlier articles in this series, you can catch up here:
- To read part 1 click here
- To read part 2 click here
According to medieval writers, Robin Hood lived in the late C13th at around the time of the Second Barons’ War. The war and the period of chaos and lawlessness that followed in its wake created the ideal conditions in which outlaws could thrive.
In the immediate aftermath of these wars many people associated with the rebels were disinherited of their lands. One mid-fifteenth century writer identifies Robin with this group:
“Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited.”Walter Bower’s re-working of the Fordum Chronicle
According to Bower and other medieval writers, Robin Hood began his career as a rebel, fighting for the barons against the king. Following the baron’s eventual defeat, the former rebel became an outlaw and a fugitive, hiding for justice in the wild forest.
But what caused this war? If Robin was a rebel, what was he rebelling against and whose cause was he fighting for?
C13th England was a century that saw significant tensions between the barons and the monarchy. Could an English King rule as an absolute monarch, or should certain laws and customs constrain him? Could he treat his subjects as he pleased, or did they have certain rights that he was duty bound to respect? To what extent could he govern alone, or should he only rule with the consent of his barons?
Very early in the C13th these questions led to a confrontation between King John and his nobles. This dispute resulted in the king being forced to make concessions and sign the famous Magna Carta. This historic charter represented a landmark in the history of democracy. In it, the monarch agreed to guarantee certain Church rights and that no citizen could be imprisoned without due process of law. Perhaps most significantly, it established the principle that the king could not impose taxation beyond certain limits without baronial consent.
The Magna Carta seemed to answer the question – the king of England was not an absolute monarch.
However, King John did not uphold his end of the bargain which resulted in the First Barons’ War (1215-1217). The death of King John brought an end to this war, but tensions remained. A few decades later, during the reign of John’s son Henry III, the issue came to a head once more.
The Second Barons’ War
By the mid C13th, an increasing number of barons were becoming uneasy about the king’s government and the influence of his court favourites. In 1258 one of the leading nobles of the land, Simon de Monfort, summoned a parliament to force the issue. De Monfort and his supporters demanded that a council of barons oversee the government.
Over the next few years, the disputes between de Monfort’s supporters the king became increasingly fraught, until civil war erupted in 1264. It was a war in which de Monfort and his supporters initially gained the upper hand. At the battle of Lewes in 1264 de Monfort emerged victorious and took both the king and his immediate family prisoner. The king became little more than a figurehead, with the real power resting with de Monfort and his supporters.
De Monfort’s parliament
For a year, between the summer of 1264 and 1265, a council of barons answering only to the English parliament governed England. De Monfort’s parliament of January 1265, represented a major step towards a more representative form of government. For the first time it sought to include a wider representation of the people of England outside the ruling elite. Parliament contained knights and burgesses as well as the nobility and senior clergy. It would, from this time forward, consist of both Lords and Commons. This was a political revolution.
Despite his successes, de Monfort’s reforming government did not last. In the middle of 1265, Henry III’s son, Prince Edward, escaped captivity and managed to raise an army to challenge the baronial faction. In August 1265 the two armies clashed at Evesham. The young Prince Edward was victorious, de Monfort killed, and the rebel army crushed.
The baronial faction was left leaderless and in disarray. But the conflict was far from over.
Evesham did not bring peace. In the ensuing years de Monfort supporters and the rag-tag remnants of his army continued a hit-and-run campaign of raiding and plundering. This undermined the king’s authority but, more importantly, brought chaos and lawlessness to England.
A key agitator during the latter part of the 1260s was one Robert Ferrers, the Earl of Derby. Although he had been part of the de Monfort camp he seems to have been far more motivated by his own selfish agenda than by any genuine vision of reform. Nevertheless, after de Monfort’s fall he became one of the key instigators of baronial dissent. He raised another army against the King in 1266 but was defeated at the Battle of Chesterfield.
The battle was only 20 miles from Sherwood Forest and, following the rout, many of Ferres’ soldiers fled into the forest to live in hiding as outlaws. No further armies of significant size would be raised against the king but bands of brigands formed of former soldiers and dispossessed rebels were an ongoing problem.
Chroniclers noted the chaos of the times. The Flowers History chronicle reports bands of armed brigands, grouping together in great enough numbers that they were considered small armed troops.
“Some persons in England, kindling with envy and rage, thirsting for money that didn’t belong to them… These men, wishing to make sure of future events, collected in the northern provinces some three hundred men, without counting infantry and light-armed cavalry.”Flowers Chronicle
Amongst these groups of rebels turned brigands were Sir John Deville and his brother Robert.
The Devilles were diehard rebels who, for a time, continued a hit-and-run style of resistance, taking advantage of the chaos to pillage and plunder.
In a particularly dark episode Sir John and his band of not so merry men raided Lincoln. There they targeted the Jewish quarter, murdering Jews and deliberately destroying records of debts owed to Jewish moneylenders by Christians. Some of these records related to John’s own debts (probably a key motive for the attack).
Eventually John and his men ended up holed up in the castle at Ely in Cambridgeshire. The locals had to pay protection money to prevent his men from plundering the surrounding area. John used the money he extorted from the locals to recruit men to strengthen his ranks. A man named Robert Hood as well as a man known as Jean de Petit (Little John) were among those recruited.
Could these men have been the historic Robin and Little John?
Mayhem in London
Once Sir John had raised a sufficient force, he next led his band of raiders to London where they raised mayhem. They even managed to set up camp in Southwark, but things soon started to fall apart. There was no real masterplan behind John’s plundering and when one of his allies struck a deal with the king for a pardon in exchange of laying down his arms, the jig was up.
John had little choice but to surrender. In exchange for his submission the new king, Edward I eventually pardoned him.
We hear little or nothing more in the historic record concerning his brother Robert’s fate. Some have speculated that Robert might have remained a rebel, living life as an outlaw, under the name of Robin Hood. It seems highly unlikely. There is no evidence he was ever known as Robin, let alone Robin Hood, or that he pursued a career as an outlaw after his brother’s surrender.
The historian, Oscar de Ville, believed the activities of the Devilles and their lawless band of followers could well have inspired elements of the Robin Hood legend.
A more realistic scenario may be that Robert Hood and Jean de Petit, who’d signed up from John’s band of looters at Ely, slipped away after John’s surrender to carve out a career of their own as outlaws. If they did, however, we hear nothing more about the pair in the historic record.
Roger Godberd provides an example of another de Monfort rebel turned brigand. Outlawed for his role in the rebellion, he remained at large for several years before his final capture in 1272.
Some aspects of Godberd’s career mirror early Robin Hood stories.
Records show he was up to no good even before the battle of Evesham. He was, for example, busy poaching deer in Sherwood Forest in 1264. He fell in with the de Monfort camp and seems to have stuck with his liege lord, the Earl Ferrers after Evesham.
Immediately after Evesham he turned to brigandage, perhaps seeking to take advantage of the chaotic times. The King’s Calendar of Patent Rolls record for 1366:
“Roger Godeberd of Swaneton came at Gerewedon [Garendon] and took and carried away by extortion the charters, which he had made to the abbot and convent of Gerewedon.”King’s Calendar Patent Rolls
However, Roger was not a fugitive for long. He sought and received a pardon in November 1366 as noted in the Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry III:
“Admission to the king’s peace of Roger Godbert and William his brother; and pardon to them of all their trespasses and forfeitures in the time of the late disturbance on condition of their good behaviour’ and grant to them the lands which they now hold shall not incur loss thereby”King’s Calendar Patent Rolls
Once a Brigand, always a Brigand
But, despite his pardon and promises of good behaviour, Roger happily carried on a life of lawlessness. It is quite likely Earl Ferrers may have incited him to do so, in the hopes of undermining the king’s authority.
Quite possibly with Ferrers’ encouragement, Roger committed a robbery at Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire in 1270. As a result of this he was eventually captured and imprisoned in Nottingham castle the following year. In 1272 Reginald de Grey receives a reward for:
“…fighting outlaws in Notts, Leic, Derby, and for manfully taking, capturing the leader Roger Godberd.”Calendar of Patent Rolls
However, the outlaws did not remain in custody for long. Later the same year Roger escaped from Nottingham Castle (in the daring kind of prison break for which Robin Hood was famed). Later, a certain individual by the name of Richard Folyot was accused of harbouring Roger and another fugitive from justice – Walter Devyas.
Despite his daring escape, Roger and his fellow fugitives were not at large for long. Devyas was caught and executed shortly afterwards. By the end of the year Roger too had been caught and re-imprisoned.
In 1275 Roger finally went on trial at Hereford. The accusations were:
“…many burglaries, homicides, arsons, and robberies committed by him in the counties of Leics, Notts, and Wilts, and especially accused that he, together with other evildoers, wickedly robbed the Abbey of Stanley in the said county of Wiltshire of a great sum of money, horses, and other things found there, and also of the death of a certain monk killed there about the feast of St Michael in the 54th year of the reign of the lord king Henry, father of the present lord king [29 Sept 1270]”Calendar of Patent Rolls
In his defence Roger claimed he committed no crimes except for those that occurred before his 1266 pardon by King Henry. It was an audacious claim. The precise outcome of the trial is unrecorded, but apparently, Roger got away with it. It seems quite likely that he was found guilty but received another pardon.
Almost certainly Roger’s lucky escape was down to his association with Earl Ferrers. Despite Ferrers’ rebellious ways, he had somehow managed to secure a royal pardon himself. The pardon came at a high price, however. Ferrers was forced to surrender significant lands to the crown. It left him mostly dispossessed but at least his life was spared. Ferrers nevertheless continued to exert some political influence during the early to mid-1270s. Perhaps it was just enough influence to get his minion off the hook.
Back to his old ways
In 1278 Roger found himself once more accused of robbery. He apparently evaded justice yet again, as in 1283 he, along with others, was under investigation for poaching deer in Sherwood Forest (an old offense that dated back to 1264).
There are certain similarities between Roger’s life and some of the early Robin Hood tales. The capture and escape from the Sheriff of Nottingham being one. His seemingly miraculous ability to evade justice (albeit this probably owed much to his powerful patron, Ferrers). Another similarity is the fact that his two most notable offences were against the church. One of the earliest Robin Hood stories tells a story of Robin and a poor knight who combine forces to thwart a corrupt abbott.
It has been suggested that Roger’s story may have served as the inspiration for many of the Robin Hood tales. Indeed, there are even suggestions that Roger was the original Robin Hood.
However, Roger was never known by the name ‘Robin Hood’ in his lifetime. Furthermore, several records of his criminal career exist from the period, and there are only references to his real name. Given his obvious notoriety, if he had ever have used the name ‘Robin Hood’ there would surely have been records.
Not simply an outlaw
Perhaps, more importantly, Roger was more than a simple outlaw. He may have been acting as the thuggish henchman of Earl Ferrers. The fact that he managed to evade punishment for his crimes is almost certainly down Ferrers’ influence.
Roger was not the independent greenwood outlaw that we see in the tales. If anything, he behaved more like Guy of Gisborne, who in the early tales boasted:
“I have done many a curst turne”Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne
Perhaps aspects of Roger’s life may have inspired some of the Robin Hood stories (such as his escape from Nottingham) and his tale certainly provides good evidence for the turmoil of the times. However, he was not Robin Hood.
Thanks to the actions of men like the Devilles and Roger Godberd, brigandage became a major problem during the 1260s and 70s. This was especially in the east midlands and, notably, in the Nottingham area:
“…in the counties of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby, as well in the common ways as in the woods, numbers of robbers, on horseback and on foot, were abroad and that no religious or other person could pass without being taken by them and spoiled of his goods and perceiving that without greater force and stouter pursuit these could not be taken or driven from the counties.”King’s Calendar Patent Rolls
From this period onwards, we start seeing an increasing number of references in the historic record to ‘Robin Hoods’ being associated with outlaws. Some variations on the Robin Hood name in these cases may not have been real names but, perhaps, nicknames.
From the late C13th records of criminals and offenders we see several different people who use appellations such as ‘Rabunhood’, ‘Robehod’, or ‘Robbehod’. Some might be real names. However, some appear to be either nicknames, or perhaps deliberately given false names.
Examples from the period include:
- John Rabunhod, brawling and murder, Fareham, 1272.
- Alexander Robehod, thief, Essex, 1272.
- Gilbert Robehod, unspecified charges, Suffolk, 1286.
- Robert Robehod, sheep rustling, Hampshire, 1294.
Perhaps the earliest example might be one William ‘Robehod’ who became a fugitive from the law in 1261/1262. He was accused of various larcenies and of harbouring other thieves. The Prior of Sandleford, seeking recompense from the outlaw, seized William’s goods without a warrant. This was technically an offense, but the king’s Remembrancer’s Memoranda Roll tells us that the Prior received a pardon. William’s father’s name was Robert le Fevere. So ‘Robehod’ was almost certainly an assumed name.
The Robbing Hooded Man
Is it possible that the adoption of such names at this time signified something like a ‘robbing hooded man’ or ‘robed hooded man’? If this is the case, the origin of ‘Robin Hood’ was not a man whose real name was Robert Hood (or some variant thereof). Instead, it is possible that the name originated in several different outlaws rather than one, who all adopted variations on the ‘robbing hood’ epithet.
It seems no coincidence that these names appear during the latter part of the C13th, a period of lawlessness and brigandage. It is also no coincidence that medieval sources specifically identify this period as being the time when Robin Hood was abroad, practising his trade.
Whilst people like Sir John Deville and Roger Godberd may have served as inspiration for later Robin Hood stories, they clearly weren’t Robin Hood themselves.
The real “Robin Hood”, if indeed there was such a fellow at this time, was more likely to be someone like the Robert Hood and Jean de petit who signed up with the Devilles. Fairly ordinary men. Men who began their career fighting as mercenaries in the chaos of the Barons’ War and who ended up hiding in the woods as outlaws. I believe it is amongst these common outlaws, these ‘Rabbunhoods’, that the legend of Robin Hood began.
In the final article in this series, I will take a closer look at the earliest Robin Hood tales that survive. Old stories from the Middle Ages, dating from the C15th. I’ll be exploring Robin Hood’s medieval identity – who did people think he was?
By relating the tales of Robin to what we know of his history, I believe we can paint a picture of the man. A picture that allows us to understand who Robin Hood really was and, more importantly, what he stood for.
Read the final article in this series here
References & further reading
Mercian Archaeological Services
Rebellion against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians – David Pilling
Robin Hood and the Potter (Middle English Ballad with translation notes)
The Visions of Piers Ploughman, on Ancientgroove.co.uk
The Journal of Medieval History
Translation: A guest of Robin Hood (Ballad)
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne in Middle English (Ballad)
Translation: Robin Hood and the Monk (Ballad)
University of Rochester Middle English texts
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne do battle – Walter Crane (Wiki Commons)
Battle of Evesham – James WE Doyle (Wiki Commons)
Nottingham Castle – James D Mackenzie (Wiki Commons)
Medieval Robbery – Unknown medieval artist (Wiki Commons)
Very interesting series, thank you! I’m curious to read the final article